Yesterday, I reviewed A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Today, I will scan their second studio effort, The Low End Theory.
Roughly a year and a half after ATCQ dropped their rookie album came The Low End Theory. Before it hit stores, however, the group was faced with a few significant changes. Jarobi White decided to leave the group to attend culinary school. Phife Dawg was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Phife also wanted and received a bigger role within the group, as Tribe’s debut sounded more like Q-Tip And Friends throughout than A Tribe Called Quest. Aside from those changes, Q-Tip admits that he drew inspiration for their second album from NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, which was released in 1988. In a 2012 interview with the HipHopDX website, Q-Tip stated, “The group was NWA, and to me, that was the benchmark. And of course I was listening to everything else around. The bar was set very high. Musically, my main thing was Dre. That was like, trying to make something he would like and appreciate in a way. Musically.” When asked about the dreaded sophomore slump that has plagued many an artist (and athlete), Tip shot back, “Sophomore jinx? What the fuck is that? I’m going to make The Low End Theory.”
The Low End Theory was released September 24, 1991, through Jive Records. While ATCQ’s first project was well-received, it still had its naysayers for being what they perceived to be too experimental, or in other words, weird. The sound of The Low End Theory made the hip-hop album one of the first to blend its native sound with jazz. Bassist Ron Carter gave an assist on a few tracks, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Co. worked to make the album sound less commercial than their first release. Once it hit stores, it was adored by the masses. It was also considered a work of art that made efforts to shrink the generational gap, and as a result, was thought to have brought on jazz rap. The Low End Theory was certified platinum on April 1, 1995.
“Excursions” is the first track on The Low End Theory, and the introductory guitar riff sets the tone for the entire album. There is a different sound to Q-Tip’s voice; a more subdued, yet stronger one that causes you to want to dance less and listen more. After briefly reminiscing about listening to hip-hop as a teen, he recalls his father’s affinity for it: “My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop/I said, well daddy don’t you know that everything moves in cycles”. If you were listening to an instrumental version of this song, you would not believe it’s hip-hop, and I believe that was the intent behind the production. Listen for samples of The Lost Poets. Bass guitar. Drums. Repeat.
It didn’t take long for Phife Dawg to make his presence felt on The Low End Theory. The diminutive artist came at us immediately on “Bugging Out”: “Microphone check, one two, what is this?/The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business/I float like gravity, never had a cavity/Got more rhymes than the Winans got family”. Phife’s verse on this song has to be regarded as one of the better hip-hop verses of all-time, and when Phife rapped, “No need to sweat Arsenio to gain some type of fame“ it sent a clear message that he and the rest of the group could stand on their own. Tip picked up where Phife left off, but I will always remember this song as the one that made me a fan of Phife Dawg. The jazz sound continues on “Rap Promoter”, as do the dope lyrics. As much as ATCQ wanted to convey that they were more than what met the eye, they still lived by a simple rule of “No pay, no play.” “If there ain’t no dough then there ain’t no show/So take your roly poly fat promoter (ass)/To the Chemical Bank and get my cash,” spit Q-Tip.
Early in high school, I imagined myself to be something like a playboy. Hearing “Butter” calmed my ass down. Phife laid out for the listener just how smooth he was: “I was the b-ball playin’, fly rhyme sayin’/Fly girl gettin’, but never was I sweatin'”. And then…we meet Flo. Flo was that girl who epitomized fresh, and despite your best efforts, would always get the better of you. Lots of guys like myself encountered Flo. Some of us have just done a better job of forgetting about her. Phife apparently didn’t forget.
I absolutely love a great sample, and two can be found on The Low End Theory‘s fifth track, “Verses from the Abstract.” Joe Farrell’s “Upon This Rock” and Heatwave’s “Star of the Story” were accompanied by Ron Carter’s bass guitar and the sultry singing of lovely Native Tongues affiliate, Vinia Mojica. No bullshit, but I had memorized every word of Tip’s second verse after listening to the song only 4 times. Uplifting as much as it was great, Tip tackled everyday struggles, the evils of the world and implored: “The thing that men and women need to do is stick together/Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever”. Producer/MC Diamond D and Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar and Sadat X joined the fray on “Show Business.” The three and Tip and Phife warned listeners that the fame is not all it’s cracked up to be. “Let me tell you ’bout the snakes, the fakes, the lies/The highs at all of these industry shing-dings,” rapped Tip in the first verse of the song.
“Vibes and Stuff” fuses People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory, in that it features production which makes it hard for you to not dance, but also a mellow sound that could be best served at a low-key, out-of-the-way jazz lounge. Jazz guitarist Grant Green’s “Down Here On The Ground” was sampled on this track, as Tip and Phife spit some of their dopest bars on any ATCQ song.
Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about track eight, “The Infamous Date Rape.” Any song title with the word “rape” in it would warrant pause, and a song featuring date rape in its title would only do worse. Somehow, Tip and Phife were able to vividly and most respectfully spin two different stories in their verses. Tip played more of the cautious approach, acknowledging: “If the vibe ain’t right, huh, ya leavin'” while Phife readily let us know that he wanted to score: “Might as well get to the point, no time to waste/Might as well break the ice, then set the pace”. Cries of rape can sometimes be unfounded, and Phife certainly intimates that at the end of his verse. Then Tip turns down the goods because of her state on “the 28th day” and, el fin.
If A Tribe Called Quest has taught you nothing else, they should have left you with this lesson that can be found on The Low End Theory‘s first single, “Check The Rhime”: “Industry rule number 4,080: Record company people are shaaady”. The video for this track symbolizes what is great about hip-hop, from the apparel of non-mainstream sports teams, delivery of lyrics and body language, and performing in front of fans at (or in the video’s case, on top of) an unconventional venue. 3 minutes and 36 seconds is just simply not enough for “Check The Rhime.”
Maintaining an upbeat sound, ATCQ gives us “Everything Is Fair.” Samples from the works of Bobby Byrd, Funkadelic, Harlem Underground Band and Willis Jackson give this track a truly funky feel, and Tip’s lyrics about “Miss Lane” paint a picture of a woman who is a boss in every sense of the word.
“Stern, firm and young with a laid-back tongue/The aim is to achieve and succeed at 21/Just like Ringling Brothers, I’ll daze and astound/Captivate the mass, ’cause the prose is profound” is how Q-Tip kicks off one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever, “Jazz (We’ve Got The)”, which was the album’s second single. Phife made sure to shout out producer Skiff Anslem and Tip reminds us that “The jazz, what? The jazz can move that ass…”
I am 27 years old. By the time cell phones were common among my friends, it was 2002 and Nextel made you big man or woman on campus. Pagers are something I am only vaguely familiar with, but after “Skypager”, I realize that I certainly missed out on a cultural phenomenon. Your Skypager can run on Duracell batteries for three weeks? You can reach me even if you’re in Costa Rica? Being interrupted while eating cacciatore with a twist of lime doesn’t sound that bad if you’re leaving to meet your lover at a quarter to 9. “What” sounds like a Sanford & Son-influenced hip-hop theme song and is about two and a half minutes of Q-Tip asking questions like “What’s Alex Haley if it doesn’t have roots?/What’s a weekend if you ain’t knockin’ boots?”
Like they did with People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, ATCQ ended The Low End Theory with a dope ass song. The finale to their second album was the ever-popular “Scenario, the project’s third single. Amazing visuals made this song even more, well, amazing. Featuring Busta Rhymes, Dinco D and Charlie Brown of Native Tongues affiliate Leaders of the New School, “Scenario” was a fucking party. Hell, even Spike Lee made a cameo appearance in the video. Adding to the perfection were the samples: “Soul Vibrations” by Kool & The Gang, “Little Miss Lover” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “So What” by Miles Davis and “Oblighetto” by Jack McDuff. “Here we go, yo, here we go, yo/So what so what so what’s the scenario…”
The Low End Theory is 2b when I rank A Tribe Called Quest albums, juuust behind People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. If this album were released first instead of second, I’d probably make it 2a, as the sound of this work was something truly unique that didn’t deviate too far from a hip-hop sound. Most memorable about this album is the emergence of Phife Dawg, who we received only in bits and pieces on Tribe’s first album. The general incorporation of what ATCQ felt was more representative of their style and sound is what makes this album so great. Not only did they decide to step up their efforts from a lyrical standpoint as a collective, they made sure that they distinguished themselves as a musical force to be reckoned with. If Tribe’s debut album was and is regarded as highly influential in the music sphere, The Low End Theory must be in that same conversation.